Monday 16 March 2009

Reviewlet: Burnout Paradise, Castle Crashers and Braid.

It would appear that the graphics card in my gaming PC has decided that it is bored with the day to day drudgery of producing modest DirectX 9 compatible graphics, and has left to go and live in a commune in the forest with my old printer and that really stupid Linksys router I had that would always drop the Internet connection whenever a download reached ninety eight percent complete. Indeed, my graphics cards has decided to stick it to The Man, has abandoned the rat race life of 3D graphics, and now spends its days printing small tie-dyed Space Invader icons all across my screen. “No maaaan, Direct X is, like, bad juju. OpenGL is baaaad karma. Here, check out these totally rad icons I made in all the colours of the rainbow. They came to me in a dream, man! You wanna toke on this? All right, man, but I’m telling you, it’s good shit.”

So while I wait for a replacement to arrive I thought I’d take stock of what I’ve been playing recently that is not PC related. In this first instalment: Burnout Paradise, Castle Crashers and Braid.

Burnout Paradise: If you don’t know about Burnout Paradise, then you haven’t been a regular listener to the Van Hemlock and Jon podcast. Shame on you! I’d played an earlier incarnation of Burnout on the GameCube and had enjoyed it enough that, combined with the constant media praise for the ‘Next Gen’ edition of the driving series, and perhaps slightly more to do with the fact that I found a copy for sale at a disgustingly cheap price in a local electrical store, I decided to grab the Xbox 360 version and give it a try. So what is Burnout Paradise? One could say that it is a driving game, but that would be a lie. It would be more accurate to say that the primary single player experience is actually a very detailed, very gruelling, hardcore orienteering simulator. Orienteering at one hundred and seventy five miles per hour in super-charged V8s. The subtitle for the game should be Vin Diesel’s Extreme Orienteering Simulator. There are various events within Burnout Paradise, but I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of them are a point-to-point race of some sort; some of these events are straight races, where others require you to avoid being taken down (run off the road so that you crash) too many times by a set of pursuers who are wolf-like in their relentless harrying. The problem is that unless you know the roads off by heart you have to rely on your map and compass to get you from start to destination; I don’t know about you, but I have enough trouble reading a map when I’m stationary at the side of the road and not in a hurry, let alone trying to decide whether I need to exit at the next turnpike whilst driving twice the posted speed limit, on the wrong side of the road, airborne halfway through an advertising hoarding, and trying to land such that I avoid the other racers who are determined to run me into the oncoming traffic. Essentially then, you’re expected to learn the layout of the city, to find the shortcuts and the crazy ways to literally cut corners, and commit them all to memory so that you need never experience that sinking feeling in your gut when you suddenly realise that you haven’t looked at the road for a good five to ten seconds, and you peer out from behind your map only to see nothing but sky. And then ground. Sky. Ground. Sky, ground, sky, ground… ‘the captain has illuminated the safety belt sign, please place your seat backs in the upright position and stow your tray in the seat in front of you in preparation for landing. Thank you.’.

I take it back, Burnout Paradise is an orienteering simulator only so long as it takes you to memorise the layout of the not inconsiderably sized city. For example, the stunt events require you to know where all the decent ramps and drifting places are with respect to your starting spot, so again it’s all about learning the area and knowing the optimal routes to take. Perhaps a better subtitle for the game would be Vin Diesel’s Extreme London Taxi Driver Knowledge Simulator, or Vin Diesel’s Bastard Hard Brain Training.

The game looks gorgeous and the physics simulation is excellent such that there is genuinely great pleasure to be had in just ‘free burning’ around the city, trying to learn the roads and find all the hidden jumps and shortcuts; it’s like a giant adventure playground for the Mad Max generation, and never does this become more clear than in the multiplayer achievement mode. Having tagged along with Jon’s Tuesday Console Club for a session of multiplayer achievement mayhem, where the game mode is a cooperative effort to try to complete various tasks set by the game – drift for a cumulative distance contributed to by all players, all players must achieve a barrel roll in a specific zone of the city, any one player must achieve a set amount of airtime from a jump, to name but a few – I have seen the level of effort that has gone into creating something that is more than just a simple arcade driving game. With Burnout Paradise, Criterion have created a driving sandbox game, it’s Elder Scrolls in American Muscle cars, and as such would have been worth its full retail price for the amount of time I will undoubtedly invest in it before I get bored. At the current clearance price it’s ridiculous value for money.

Castle Crashers: Ren & Stimpy meets Golden Axe. Need I say anything more? Expect lots of subtle yet childish humour and old-school arcade game-play with the respective rapid ramp-up of difficulty that coin-op machines would employ to keep you feeding them regular snacks of cupro-nickel. There’s a hat-tip RPG element in the form of points gained per level that you can invest in various stats in order to customise your character towards your preferred style of fighting. There are upgradable weapons; spells; potions and there are enemies. Lots and lots of enemies. There is one excellent tactic granted to you in order to deal with the vast relentless tide of foes that you face, and that is the fact that you can bring three of your friends along for the fight. The graphics are crisp, the animations traditional but fun, and the audio is that perfect blend of catchy tunes that bleed into the game without taking over from the arcade-homage sound effects. A very enjoyable, easily accessible, side scrolling hack’n’slash arcade game of the old school. It’s available on the XBox Arcade, and for me the only thing it lacks is a backing ambience of Penny-Go-Round coin pushers, an oppressively dark and smoky atmosphere, and a strange emo kid called Danny who stands slightly too close while looking over your shoulder as you try to play.

Braid: You remember that girl you knew at school? You do. The stunningly pretty one who all the boys fancied and half the girls did too, and they all waxed lyrical about how fantastic she was. Remember your disappointment when it turned out that no matter how much you or anyone else loved her, they would never be able to love her more than she already loved herself? Braid is what would happen if that girl was sucked into the Tron machine and transferred into the digital realm.

Braid is pretty. Braid is clever. Braid loves itself utterly, and no clearer is this in evidence than in its supposedly deep and meaningful story. Braid wants to be seen as high art, and Braid thinks it is too good for the likes of you.

What Braid actually appears to be is a delightful little Marioesque platformer combined with puzzle elements generated using the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time time mechanic. The puzzles are devious and clever in their implementation, and this is the one thing that I think Braid brings to the table that makes it special and perhaps more than just another amalgamation of game-play elements slapped together from existing games. Braid is an accomplished game, it presents a coherent, attractive, and innately comprehensible game world. It’s just such a shame that it clearly thinks that it is far more of a revelation than it actually is.

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